Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses / Edited, with an Introduction, by Helen Zimmern


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The advantages proceeding from the institution of a Royal Academy.—Hints offered to the consideration of the Professors and visitors.—That an implicit obedience to the rules of Art be exacted from the young students.—That a premature disposition to a masterly dexterity be repressed.—That diligence be constantly recommended, and (that it may be effectual) directed to its proper object1
The course and order of study.—The different stages of Art.—Much copying discountenanced.—The Artist at all times and in all places should be employed in laying up materials for the exercise of his Art10
The great leading principles of the grand style.—Of beauty.—The genuine habits of nature to be distinguished from those of fashion25
General ideas the presiding principle which regulates every part of Art; Invention, Expression, Colouring, and Drapery.—Two distinct styles in history-painting; the grand and the ornamental.—The schools in which each is to be found.—The composite style.—The style formed on local customs and habits, or a partial view of nature39
Circumspection required in endeavouring to unite contrary excellencies.—The expression of a mixed passion not to be attempted.—Examples of those who excelled in the great style.—Raffaelle, Michel Angelo, those two extraordinary men compared with each other.—The characteristical style.—Salvator Rosa mentioned as an example of that style; and opposed to Carlo Maratti.—Sketch of the characters of Poussin and Rubens.—These two Painters entirely dissimilar, but consistent with themselves.—This consistency required in all parts of the Art58
Imitation.—Genius begins where rules end.—Invention; acquired by being conversant with the inventions of others.—The true method of imitating.—Borrowing, how far allowable.—Something to be gathered from every school74
The reality of a standard of taste as well as of corporal beauty.—Beside this immutable truth, there are secondary truths, which are variable; both requiring the attention of the Artist, in proportion to their stability or their influence98
The principles of Art, whether Poetry or Painting, have their foundation in the mind; such as novelty, variety, and contrast; these in their excess become defects.—Simplicity, its excess disagreeable.—Rules not to be always observed in their literal sense; sufficient to preserve the spirit of the law.—Observations on the Prize Pictures129
On the removal of the Royal Academy to Somerset Place.—The advantages to Society from cultivating intellectual pleasure154
Sculpture: Has but one style.—Its objects, form, and character.—Ineffectual attempts of the modern Sculptors to improve the art.—Ill effects of modern dress in Sculpture158
Genius: Consists principally in the comprehension of A whole; in taking general ideas only174
Particular methods of study of little consequence—Little of the art can be taught.—Love of method often a love of idleness.—Pittori improvvisatori apt to be careless and incorrect; seldom original and striking:—This proceeds from their not studying the works of other masters190
Art not merely imitation, but under the direction of the Imagination.—In what manner Poetry, Painting, Acting, Gardening, and Architecture depart from Nature211
Character of Gainsborough: his excellencies and defects230
The President takes leave of the Academy.—A Review of the Discourses.—The study of the Works of Michel Angelo recommended248
The Idler, No. 76. False Criticisms on Painting269
————   No. 79. The Grand Style of Painting275
————   No. 82. The true idea of Beauty279


Sir Joshua Reynolds—to whom is the name unfamiliar? to whom, hearing it, does not appear in mental vision the equally familiar autograph portrait of the deaf artist? This picture, painted originally for Mr. Thrale, shows us the painter “in his habit as he lived,” spectacles on nose, ear-trumpet in hand—in short, exactly as he was known to his intimates in his latter days in domestic life. Another autograph picture of the artist in younger life hangs to-day in the National Gallery. Close by is seen the portrait by the same hand of his equally illustrious friend, bluff, common-sense Dr. Johnson, whom he represents as reading and holding his book close to his eyes after the manner of the short-sighted. It would seem that this mode of representation roused Dr. Johnson’s ire. “It is not friendly,” he remarked, “to hand down to posterity the imperfections of any person.” This comment of the doctor’s is equally characteristic of the man and his times. At so low an ebb was art and art criticism in those days, that people less learned than Johnson failed to grasp the truth of Reynolds’ dictum, now become almost a commonplace, that a portrait but receives enhanced value as a human and historical document if it makes us acquainted with any natural peculiarity that characterises the person delineated. Johnson rebelled against the notion he deduced from this circumstance that Sir Joshua would make him known to posterity by his defects only; he vowed to Mrs. Thrale he would not be so known. “Let Sir Joshua do his worst, . . . he may paint himself as deaf as he chooses, but I will not be blinking Sam.”

In this anecdote, in this juxtaposition of two great names, each thoroughly representative of their epoch, can be traced both the cause of Sir Joshua’s success, and of the difficulties against which he had to strive. Reynolds may with truth be named the father of modern English art, for before him English art can scarcely be said to have existed, since what was produced on British soil was chiefly the work of foreigners. The records even of this older art are sufficiently barren. It would appear that in the reign of Henry III. some foreign artists were invited over to decorate Winchester Castle, but of them and their works little trace remains. At the time when Italy was producing her masterpieces no native artist of whom we have record bedaubed canvas in Great Britain; and when the pomp-loving Henry VIII. wished to vie with his great contemporaries, Charles V., Leo X., and Francis I., he had to turn to the Continent for the men to execute his desires. That he himself had no true taste or love for the arts is well known; it was purely the spirit of emulation that prompted him. How crude were his own art notions may be gathered from the written instructions he left for a monument to his memory. They serve equally to illustrate the state of public taste in England at a period when Italy was inspired by the genius of Michael Angelo, of Raphael, and of Titian. The memorandum directs that “the king shall appear on horseback, of the stature of a goodly man; while over him shall appear the image of God the Father, holding the king’s soul in his left hand, and his right extended in the act of benediction.” This work was to have been executed in bronze, and was considerably advanced when Elizabeth put a stop to its progress. It was afterwards sold by the Puritan parliament for six hundred pounds. Still, for all his own artistic incapacity, it is more than probable that had not Henry, for private domestic reasons, adopted the Reformed faith, England under his reign might have witnessed a prosperous art period, which, it is true, would not have been native art, but might have given impetus towards its birth. Thackeray was fond of saying that it was no idle speculation to suppose what would have happened had Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo. To those who love such fruitless mental sports it may prove no idle speculation to ponder what would have happened had Henry’s amorous desires not led him to liberate himself and his nation from the bosom of the Catholic Church. Enough that the facts are there, and that with the first ardour of Protestant zeal there also made itself felt a chilling influence, casting a blight over literature and art, and more especially over art, till then so almost exclusively the handmaiden of religion, that a work of art came to be regarded as a symbol and remembrance of popery, and “painting and sculpture were conscientiously discouraged as tending to encourage idolatry and superstition and to minister to passion and luxury.” Queen Mary, Elizabeth, and James I., each in their way gave some encouragement to foreign artists, such as Moro, Zucchero, and Mytens, but their patronage was purely personal, and did not operate upon the taste of the nation. More extended influence was exercised by Charles I. This monarch had a real love and understanding for art, and under him Rubens and Vandyke employed their pencils. He also bought many pictures, and encouraged his nobles to do the like. At least, among the upper classes the narrow Puritan art views were greatly counteracted. But Charles had to lay his head upon the block, and Puritanism had fuller and more unchecked sway than ever before, creating influences which to this very day are not wholly extinct, though happily in their death throes. Their latest survival is the “British Matron” who writes to the Times denouncing modern pictures that displease her individual taste, and the artists, happily rare and few, who preach that the study of the nude and anatomy is no essential part of a painter’s education.

After the death of Charles a general wreck of works of art ensued. Whatever survived the bigotry of the Puritans was sacrificed to supply their pecuniary necessities. A curious mixture of superstition and covetousness was displayed. The journals of the House of Commons of 1645 afford some interesting reading like the following:—”Ordered: that all pictures and sketches as are without superstition shall be forthwith sold for the benefit of Ireland and the north. Ordered: that all such pictures as have the representation of the Virgin Mary upon them shall be forthwith burnt. Ordered: that all such pictures as have the representation of the Second Person of the Trinity upon them shall be forthwith burnt.” It seems, however, that these orders were not quite strictly executed. The Puritan conscience having been relieved by this edict, many prohibited pictures were sold at a high price to swell the coffers of the zealots. After this it is needless to remark that art did not flourish under the Commonwealth. With the Restoration we find Lely practising his method of portrait-painting, succeeded by Sir Godfrey Kneller, neither, however, being Englishmen. The era of George I. produced as native painters, Richardson and Sir James Thornhill; under George II. Hudson flourished; it was reserved to the long reign of George III. to see the birth of what can be truly termed art, of what alone can measure itself with the nations of the Continent. Hogarth was the first upon the list, but Hogarth, inimitable as he is, was rather a satirist than an artist in the full acceptation of the term. Of beauty of draughtmanship, of colour, we find next to nothing in his canvasses. Together with him flourished Hudson, and a little later Wilson and Gainsborough, who, like himself, and, indeed, like all English artists up to that time, had imbibed their teaching through the medium of Flanders, producing exact and careful work—indeed, in Gainsborough’s case, work of real beauty—but lacking on the side of poetical feeling and elevation. Such a method must be regarded as the infancy of art, its purely observant but unthinking side. It was reserved to Reynolds to open out to English understanding the vista of Italian art, with its glories, its perfections, and it is owing to his Discourses, even more than to his works, that this mighty revolution came about; a revolution so mighty, so important, that for its sake alone, had he never limned a canvas, the name of Reynolds should stand forth proudly in the annals of England. It was he who, coming to Italy, already in mature manhood, as a finished artist in the eyes of his countrymen, had the perception and the courage to admit before the works of Raphael and Michael Angelo that it was needful for him “to become as a little child” and recommence his studies upon principles of which hitherto he was ignorant.

Joshua Reynolds was born at Plympton, in Devonshire, July 16th, 1723, the tenth child of the Rev. Samuel Reynolds, rector of Plympton and principal of the local grammar school. His father was the boy’s only instructor. He had destined him, it would seem, for the medical profession, and Reynolds is known to have said in latter life that if this design had been carried out, “he should have felt the same determination to become the most eminent physician as he then felt to be the first painter of his age and country.” It was, indeed, his decided opinion (an opinion modern psychology would hardly endorse) that “the superiority attainable in any pursuit whatever does not originate in an innate propensity of the mind for that pursuit in particular, but depends on the general strength of the intellect, and on the intense and constant application of that strength to a specific purpose.” He held that ambition was the cause of eminence, but that accident pointed out the means. It is impossible to decide whether or no Reynolds illustrates his own theory, but from what he said in private, and also in his Discourses, many erroneous conclusions are drawn as to this point. As his biographer, Northcote, justly observes, Reynolds “never meant to deny the existence of genius, supposing the term to denote a greater degree of natural capacity in some minds than others; but he always contended strenuously against the vulgar and absurd interpretation of the word, which supposes that the same person may be a man of genius in one respect, but utterly unfit for, and almost an idiot in everything else; and that this singular and unaccountable faculty is a gift born with us, which does not need the assistance of pains or culture, time or accident, to improve and perfect it.”

Whatever Reynolds’ private views on the subject of native taste asserting itself in the young, he himself undoubtedly showed a liking for art at an early age, and his taste was fostered by his father, himself an amateur possessing a small collection of anatomical and other prints. If Joshua’s love of drawing did not interfere with his other studies, his father did not check it. Thus there is extant to this day a perspective drawing of a bookcase under which Mr. Reynolds has written, “Done by Joshua out of pure idleness.” It is on the back of a Latin exercise. He copied such prints as he could find in his father’s library, Jacob Cats’s Book of Emblems furnishing him with the richest store. This his grandmother, who was a native of Holland, had contributed to the family bookshelves. When he was only eight years old he read with eagerness The Jesuit’s Perspective, and so thoroughly did he master its rules that he never afterwards had to study any other works on the subject. An application of these rules to practice is preserved in a drawing of the grammar school at Plympton. It was so well done that the father exclaimed, “Now this exemplifies what the author of the ‘Perspective’ asserts, that by observing the rules laid down in this book a man may do wonders, for this is wonderful.”

Visitors to the Reynolds’ Exhibition, which was held in the Grosvenor Gallery in 1884, may remember this little drawing, which was among the exhibits.

Portraits of his family and friends next occupied Reynolds’ youthful pencil, while his love of art was influenced by reading Richardson’s Treatise of Painting. This book first awoke in him his enthusiastic adoration of Raffaelle (of whose works he had till then seen nothing), a love he cherished until the end of his days. At seventeen his liking for art showing no diminution, the father decided he should follow a painter’s career, and took him to London, where he placed him under Hudson, the most eminent artist England could then boast. By a curious accident he was entered at Hudson’s on St. Luke’s day, the patron saint of art and artists. Hudson set him at work at copying, a system Sir Joshua afterwards strenuously condemned. His words on this matter, written in the 2nd Discourse, should be “read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested” by all art professors and students—they are golden words of wisdom.

Notwithstanding the master’s inadequate teaching, the pupil made such progress that he aroused Hudson’s jealousy, who, after two years’ apprenticeship, found a pretext for dismissing him. Reynolds, with what he had learnt, continued to paint down in Devonshire, taking the portraits of the local magnates. How conventional his style was at first is proved by the following anecdote. It was a favourite attitude with the portrait-painters of the time to represent their model with one hand in waistcoat and the hat under the arm, convenient because it dispensed the artist from the difficult task of painting the hand. Now it happened that one gentleman, whose portrait Reynolds painted, desired to have his hat on his head. The picture, which was quickly finished and posed in a commonplace attitude, was done without much study. When sent home, it was discovered, on inspection, that although this gentleman in his portrait had one hat upon his head, there was another under his arm.

For three years Reynolds painted in Devonshire, and certainly improved greatly under his own instructions and those of William Gandy of Exeter, so that some of the works of this period are undoubtedly fine. During these first years of seclusion he taught himself to think as well as to paint; and that the labour of the mind is the most essential requisite in forming a great painter is a doctrine he constantly inculcates in his Discourses, distinguishing it from that of the hand. He aptly applied the dictum of Grotius—”Nothing can come of nothing”—to demonstrate the necessity of teaching.

The more Reynolds thought, however, the less was he satisfied with his own performances, and that he did not see himself progress with greater speed no doubt fretted him the more, inasmuch as he had early declared it his fixed opinion that if he did not prove himself the best painter of his time, when arrived at the age of thirty, he never should. For the completion of his studies he unceasingly felt that he must visit Italy, and behold with his own eyes those masterpieces of which he had heard so much. Chance offered him a passage to the Continent in the flagship of Viscount Keppel, and thus, at the age of twenty-six, May 11th, 1749, Reynolds first set sail for the Continent, and for the land of his desires and aspirations.

On Sir Joshua’s death papers were found on which were written a number of detached thoughts, jotted down as hints for a Discourse, never written, in which the artist intended to give a history of his mind, so far as it concerned his art, his progress, studies, and practice. One of these fragments narrates his feelings on first seeing the treasures of Italian art, and is sufficiently remarkable. “It has frequently happened,” he writes, “as I was informed by the keeper of the Vatican, that many of those whom he had conducted through the various apartments of that edifice, when about to be dismissed, have asked for the works of Raffaelle, and would not believe that they had already passed through the rooms where they are preserved; so little impression had these performances made on them. One of the first painters in France told me that this circumstance happened to himself; though he now looks on Raffaelle with that veneration which he deserves from all painters and lovers of art. I remember very well my own disappointment when I first visited the Vatican; but on confessing my feelings to a brother student, of whose ingenuousness I had a high opinion, he acknowledged that the works of Raffaelle had the same effect on him; or rather, that they did not produce the effect which he expected. This was a great relief to my mind; and, on inquiring farther of other students, I found that those persons only who from natural imbecility appeared to be incapable of ever relishing these divine performances, made pretensions to instantaneous raptures on first beholding them. In justice to myself, however, I must add, that though disappointed and mortified at not finding myself enraptured with the works of this great master, I did not for a moment conceive or suppose that the name of Raffaelle and those admirable paintings in particular owed their reputation to the ignorance and prejudice of mankind; on the contrary, my not relishing them, as I was conscious I ought to have done, was one of the most humiliating things that ever happened to me. I found myself in the midst of works executed upon principles with which I was unacquainted. I felt my ignorance, and stood abashed.

“All the indigested notions of painting which I had brought with me from England, where the art was at the lowest ebb—it could not indeed be lower—were to be totally done away with and eradicated from my mind. It was necessary, as it is expressed on a very solemn occasion, that I should become as a little child. Notwithstanding my disappointment, I proceeded to copy some of those excellent works. I viewed them again and again; I even affected to feel their merits and to admire them more than I really did. In a short time a new taste and new perceptions began to dawn upon me, and I was convinced that I had originally formed a false opinion of the perfection of art, and that this great painter was well entitled to the high rank which he holds in the estimation of the world.

“The truth is, that if these works had been really what I expected, they would have contained beauties superficial and alluring, but by no means such as would have entitled them to the great reputation which they have long and so justly obtained.”

It must, of course, be borne in mind, reading these words, that Sir Joshua Reynolds had not the advantages put into the way to-day, not only of art students, but of every person more or less interested in art, in the way of copies, photographs, autotypes, from the works and drawings of the great masters. He had to learn to understand, and he at once put himself into the attitude of the learner, humbly assured that the fault in appreciation must be in himself, not in those masterpieces. His good sense told him that “the duration and stability of their fame is sufficient to evince that it has not been suspended upon the slender thread of fashion and caprice, but bound to the human heart by every tie of sympathetic approbation.”

“Having since that period,” continues Sir Joshua, “frequently revolved the subject in my mind, I am now clearly of opinion that a relish for the higher excellences of the art is an acquired taste, which no man ever possessed without long cultivation and great labour and attention. On such occasions as that which I have mentioned, we are often ashamed of our apparent dulness, as if it were expected that our minds, like tinder, should instantly catch fire from the divine spark of Raffaelle’s genius. I flatter myself that now it would be so, and that I have a just perception of his great powers; but let it be remembered that the excellence of his style is not on the surface, but lies deep, and at the first view is seen but mistily. It is the florid style which strikes at once, and captivates the eye, for a time, without ever satisfying the judgment. Nor does painting in this respect differ from other arts. A just poetical taste, and the acquisition of a nice discriminative musical ear, are equally the work of time. Even the eye, however perfect in itself, is often unable to distinguish between the brilliancy of two diamonds, though the experienced jeweller will be amazed at its blindness; not considering that there was a time when he himself could not have been able to pronounce which of the two was the most perfect, and that his own power of discrimination was acquired by slow and imperceptible degrees.”

From the first Reynolds avoided making copies, and had refused lucrative orders. He sketched portions of pictures, such as he thought would help his own comprehension, but he would do no slavish imitation. “The man of true genius,” writes Sir Joshua, “instead of spending all his hours, as many artists do while they are at Rome, in measuring statues and copying pictures, soon begins to think for himself, and endeavour to do something like what he sees. I consider general copying,” he adds, “as a delusive kind of industry: the student satisfies himself with the appearance of doing something; he falls into the dangerous habit of imitating without selecting, and labouring without a determinate object; as it requires no effort of mind, he sleeps over his work, and those powers of invention and disposition which ought particularly to be called out and put into action lie torpid, and lose their energy for want of exercise. How incapable of producing anything of their own those are who have spent most of their time in making finished copies, is an observation well known to all those who are conversant with our art.”

His own precise method of study is not known, but it may be assumed that he was chiefly occupied in reasoning on what he observed. Elsewhere he writes—”A painter should form his rules from pictures rather than from books or precepts; rules were first made from pictures, not pictures from rules. Every picture an artist sees, whether the most excellent or the most ordinary, he should consider whence that fine effect or that ill effect proceeds, and then there is no picture ever so indifferent but he may look at it to his profit.” “The artist,” he observes, “who has his mind filled with ideas, and his hand made expert by practice, works with ease and readiness; whilst he who would have you believe that he is waiting for the inspirations of genius, is in reality at a loss how to begin, and is at last delivered of his monsters with difficulty and pain. The well-grounded painter, on the contrary, has only maturely to consider his subject, and all the mechanical parts of his art will follow, without his exertion.”

The mode of study which Sir Joshua adopted himself he continually recommends to the students: “Instead of copying the touches of those great masters, copy only their conceptions; instead of treading in their footsteps, endeavour only to keep the same road; labour to invent on their general principles and way of thinking; possess yourself with their spirit; consider with yourself how a Michael Angelo or a Raffaelle would have treated this subject, and work yourself into a belief that your picture is to be seen and criticised by them when completed; even an attempt of this kind will raise your powers.

“We all must have experienced how lazily, and consequently how ineffectually, instruction is received when forced upon the mind by others. Few have been taught to any purpose who have not been their own teachers. We prefer those instructions which we have given ourselves from our affection to the instructor; and they are more effectual from being received into the mind at the very time when it is most open to receive them.”

Having stayed in Rome as long as his resources allowed, Sir Joshua visited Florence, Venice, and some of the smaller Italian towns, everywhere adopting the same careful, observant method of study. After an absence of nearly three years he returned to England, feeling himself indeed a mentally richer, wiser man than he set out.

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